US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

Former New York Gov. George Pataki launched his presidential campaign last week in Exeter, New Hampshire, the site where the Republican Party was first proposed in 1853. It was fitting that Pataki announced his candidacy in a place that showcased the party's history. As a Republican who supports abortion rights, gun control, gay rights, and environmentalism, Pataki is something of a living museum piece himself.

The irony is, Pataki helped build the conservative coalition that would make the GOP hostile territory for socially liberal Republicans. In 1990 Pataki attended the American Opportunity Workshop, a meeting designed to shore up support for Newt Gingrich's GOPAC. That organization served as a training ground for aspiring Republican officeholders. It was through GOPAC that Gingrich laid the groundwork for a Republican House majority — a lofty goal in the early 1990s, given that Democrats had controlled the chamber since 1955.

Even when conservative Republicans swept the 1994 midterms, bringing in the first Republican majority in 40 years and making Gingrich speaker of the House, it was not clear that the party would lurch to the right on social issues. In drafting the Contract with America, the platform that was the focal point of Republicans' 1994 campaign, Gingrich insisted the party stick to "60 percent issues" — issues which had the support of at least 60 percent of Americans. So balanced budgets and term limits were in, while more divisive issues like abortion and school prayer were out. It was the kind of platform a Rockefeller Republican like Pataki could get behind.

But Rockefeller Republicans — named after another former New York governor, Nelson D. Rockefeller — were already a dying breed by the time Pataki won office in the 1994 Republican sweep. Their decline was remarkable, given that they were once the most visible leaders of the party.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the party's economic conservatism was balanced by a substantial strain of social liberalism. Governors like Rockefeller and George Romney were vocal supporters of the civil rights movement. Even the party's conservatives were more socially moderate: Barry Goldwater was a committed environmentalist and supporter of Planned Parenthood.

Yet as historian Geoffrey Kabaservice documented in his book "Rule and Ruin," moderates had lost the fight for the soul of the Republican Party by the end of the 1960s. They couldn't match the organizational power or ideological passion of the party's conservatives. While moderate Republicans continued to hold office, their numbers dwindled rapidly. And the party's conservatives not only grew in number but in ideological vigor. Midterm sweeps in 1994 and 2010 hastened this lurch to the right.

Governors' mansions were once the exception to this shift, wildlife refuges for the party's endangered moderates. As late as 2004, a Rockefeller Republican like Pataki could still nab the spotlight at the Republican National Convention (held in New York City), where he introduced President George W. Bush. (Pataki, like New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, got a pass on social issues because of his leadership after the September 11 attacks.)

As that moment passed, however, so did Pataki's relevance. The party shifted further right over the past decade, and governors eyeing national office shifted along with it. On The Hill's campaign blog, Jonathan Easley outlined the ways governors considering a 2016 run have moved right on social issues: Scott Walker is pushing for greater abortion restrictions in Wisconsin, Chris Christie wants to gut Common Core in New Jersey and Bobby Jindal is pursuing controversial religious freedom legislation in Louisiana.

Not among their number? Pataki. The socially liberal candidate no doubt hoped to be a breath of fresh air in the 2016 race. Instead, he's the last gasp of moderate Republicanism. 

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report